Document Type



Michigan Journal of Gender & Law




This Article presents a hypothesis suggesting how and why the criminal justice response to domestic violence changed, over the course of the twentieth century, from sympathy for abused women and a surprising degree of state intervention in intimate relationships to the apathy and discrimination that the battered women' movement exposed. The riddle of declining public sympathy for female victims of intimate-partner violence can only be solved by looking beyond the criminal law to the social and legal changes that created the Exit Myth.

While the situation that gave rise to the battered women's movement in the 1970s is often presumed to be part of a long history of state tolerance or even approval of violence against women, the real history is actually much more complicated. Indeed, at least until 1930, wife beaters were routinely brought to criminal court and fined or sentenced to a jail term. Whereas wife killers often faced life imprisonment or even the death penalty, juries acquitted many women who used lethal violence against their abusive husbands.

What happened between the 1920s and the later decades of the twentieth century that changed how the public and the criminal justice system responded to domestic violence? This Article offers the following hypothesis: As women gained the vote and sought easy access to divorce, and as mothers of minor children began to compete for jobs formerly held exclusively by men, society and the criminal justice system less often saw abused wives as frail beings who needed protection against their violent husbands. Changes in employment opportunities, family and property law, and psychosocial understandings of intimate relationships combined to create a false sense of the ease with which women could exit an abusive marriage. This overestimation of women's ability to leave, paired with the new view that women did not need to be protected in paternalistic ways, contributed to waning sympathy for female victims of intimate-partner violence. In the second half of the twentieth century, such women were presumed-often unfairly and incorrectly-to be capable of safely leaving their relationships and supporting themselves. As gender roles changed to allow greater female autonomy, the criminal justice response may have become more punitive and less sympathetic toward women trapped in violent intimate relationship